The Culture of Sensibility: Sex and Society in Eighteenth-Century Britain

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University of Chicago Press, 1996 - History - 520 pages
During the eighteenth century, "sensibility, " which once denoted merely the receptivity of the senses, came to mean a particular kind of acute and well-developed consciousness invested with spiritual and moral values and largely identified with women. How this change occurred and what it meant for society is the subject of G.J. Barker-Benfield's argument in favor of a "culture" of sensibility, in addition to the more familiar "cult." Barker-Benfield's expansive account traces the development of sensibility as a defining concept in literature, religion, politics, economics, education, domestic life, and the social world. He demonstrates that the "cult of sensibility" was at the heart of the culture of middle-class women that emerged in eighteenth-century Britain. The essence of this culture, Barker-Benfield reveals, was its articulation of women's consciousness in a world being transformed by the rise of consumerism that preceded the industrial revolution. The new commercial capitalism, while fostering the development of sensibility in men, helped many women to assert their own wishes for more power in the home and for pleasure in "the world" beyond. Barker-Benfield documents the emergence of the culture of sensibility from struggles over self-definition within individuals and, above all, between men and women as increasingly self-conscious groups. He discusses many writers, from Rochester through Hannah More, but pays particular attention to Mary Wollstonecraft as the century's most articulate analyst of the feminized culture of sensibility. Barker-Benfield's book shows how the cultivation of sensibility, while laying foundations for humanitarian reforms generally had as its primaryconcern the improvement of men's treatment of women. In the eighteenth-century identification of women with "virtue in distress" the author finds the roots of feminism, to the extent that it has expressed women's common sense of their victimization by men. Drawing on literature, phi
 

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Contents

Sensibility and the Nervous System
3
A New Psychoperceptual System
5
George Cheyne 16711743
8
The Reformation of Manners Combined with Consumerism
11
Nerve Theory in Novels
17
Female Nerves and Sensibilitys Ambiguity
25
The Reformation of Male Manners
39
The Campaign for the Reformation of Manners
57
Taste
207
A Culture of Reform
217
Women and Humanitarian Reform
226
The Campaign on Behalf of Victims of Male Barbarity
233
The Man of Feeling
249
Conversion
252
The Cult of Sensibility
260
Methodism and the Culture of Sensibility
268

Heart Religion
67
The Civilizing Process and British Commercial Capitalism
79
Changed Environments and the New World of Parents and Children
100
The Question of Effeminacy
106
Shaftesbury
107
Mandeville
121
Hume and Smith
134
Henry MacKenzie
143
Thomas Day
150
Women and EighteenthCentury Consumerism
156
Women Become Literate Women Write Novels
163
Womens SelfExpression in Fashion
175
Fiction Records Womens Pleasure Seeking
189
Ambivalence toward Womens Pursuit of Consumer Pleasures
192
The Rights of Woman and the Reformation of Manners
281
Women and Individualism Inner and Outer Struggles over Sensibility
289
Egotism and Opposition
305
The Reality of Heroism and Romance
317
Marriage and Class
323
Sensibility and Sex
328
Wollstonecraft and the Crisis over Sensibility in the 1790s
353
Wollstonecraft Hays and the Conflict over Sensibility
361
Wollstonecraft Becomes Amazon
370
Man Was Made to Reason Woman to Feel Compromise
384
Notes
399
Index
507
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